How the World's best runners strike the ground

I've spent a lot of time talking about footstrike and where it occurs on this blog.  If you recall from previous posts, there has been a large debate about where foot strike should occur.  I don't have to go through all the details again, but the general consesus is that many scientific researchers have favored the heel strike as the correct way to run for the past two decades or so. Frequently the recent Japanese Half Marathon study is cited as proof that even good runners heel strike. 

Today, I recieved a video from Niell Elvin, a professor at the City College of NY, of the 5th avenue mile elite women's race.  So, I'd like to thank Niell for taking the time to set this up and take the video, and I hope it spurs more of you who now have access to high speed video camera's to take initiative and film some of the top runners at races around the world.  (Take note of how Niell had the camera set up so that the runners were perpendicular to the camera too!)

I'll definately be doing further analysis on this video, but for now let's take a quick look at footstrike.  Here's the video:


Footstrike of the elites:
A couple of things to keep in mind is that this is a slightly downhill road race.  The video was shot near the 1/4mile mark and if memory serves me right from last year when I was watching a training partner and an athlete I coached race it, that particular spot is flat.  The real downhill does not come until after the half mile mark.  Secondly, it's taken during a good part of the race in that it's after the start enough so that they have settled into the race, but not so far that fatigue has set in. So it gives us a good idea of their mechanics without fatigue.

For the quick analysis, I went through and tried to get a clear shot of what was happening with their foot right before contact occured.  Even with a 300fps shot, this is difficult, so instead of segmenting into several different classifications, I stuck with two main classifications: heel strike and flat foot.  Where I could clearly see the forefoot touching down first, I mentioned that in parenthesis.

The Findings:
I could get a clear shot of 15 out of 18 runners.  Out of those 15:
11 "Flat foot", 4 Heel strikers

In order of finish:
1 31 Shannon Rowbury Nike 4:24.12 -Flatfoot (Forefoot)
2 40 Sara Hall Asics 4:24.34 -Flatfoot
3 34 Erin Donohue Nike 4:24.40 - Flatfoot (forefoot)
4 42 Hannah England Nike 4:25.29 - Heel
5 39 Molly Huddle Saucony 4:25.92 -Flatfoot (Forefoot)
6 33 Morgan Uceny Reebok 4:26.27 – flatfoot
7 43 Amy Mortimer Reebok 4:27.07 -Heel
8 35 Carmen Douma-Hussar New Balance 4:27.53 -Flatfoot
9 36 Elisa Cusma Piccione Nike 4:28.50 -???
10 41 Treniere Moser USA Nike 4:28.84- ???
11 37 Nicole Edwards Saucony 4:29.14 - Heel strike
12 50 Gabriele Anderson Brooks 4:30.95 –Flatfoot
13 47 Heather Dorniden Team USA Minnesota 4:31.05 - extended/ but comes back flatfoot
14 48 Hilary Stellingwerff Canada New Balance 4:32.06 - Flatfoot (forefoot)
15 44 Megan Wright New Balance 4:35.28 -????
16 45 Liz Maloy New York Athletic Club 4:37.06 –Flatfoot (forefoot)
17 49 Aziza Aliyu West Side Runners 4:37.84 - Heel
18 46 Brenda Martinez New Balance 4:46.36 -Forefoot/Flatfoot




















What I largely saw is that the majority of the runners landed flatfoot and overall have pretty good biomechanics.  I'll save further analysis for later, but I was really impressed with how recent American Record setter in the 5k, Molly Huddle, looked.  On the opposite side of things, I'm amazed at Hannah England.  She's a very impressive runner, but her running form leaves a lot to be desired.  She has the classic heel strike/overstride/ leaning back, form going on.  Making slow subtle changes would surely benefit her.

It's important to note that how the foot strike occurs is also important, and if you watch this video you can clearly see that a couple runners have some unique ways of striking the ground.

This is just a quick post and analysis, and I'll be sure to return to this great video again.  As it is easy to get caught up with foot strike, but it is just one part of the stride.

Thanks again to Niell Elvin for taking this video.  My hope is that we can get a large collection of high speed video of elites running.  I plan to get some of when I compete at bigger races and hopefully when I'm doing some coaching at bigger races too.

21 comments:

  1. Great video analysis. Thanks for sharing...

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  2. Initial reaction: you don't have to have great form to be an elite (but you probably do already). Improvements in form for England will probably cut her race times down - she over extends pretty dramatically.

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  3. Anonymous12:34 PM

    Very interesting video and post. I'm assuming you've seen the Ryan Hall slow-mo from Boston? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0Y09u9WTdA If not, you can add it to your collection.

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  4. Really cool stuff! Is there any connection to the speed they are racing? Is a forefooter always a forefooter? They are basically doing a mile sprint so if they were pacing for a marathon do you think there would be a change in ground strike? Or are good mechanics just good mechanics?

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  5. Great video and analysis. So many lurking variables that can't be represented in this video. You address many of them, angle of incline, fatigue...

    Love the breakdown.

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  6. Jim captured my thought as well. It would be fascinating to track these same athletes over longer distance races. In this way we could see whether their running form changes with race distance (e.g. with them racing a 10K versus one-mile to study whether their running form changes).

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  7. Jim and Mark - my gut tells me that those who don't heel strike here probably won't at lower speeds either. At least for me, since I made the switch, I tend to go midfoot even at very slow speeds. Granted, I'm no elite, but it is an interesting question to ponder and that shouldn't be that hard to answer.

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  8. Jim, Mark, Pete- I can only give my experiences. But from the HS kids I have filmed over the years, if they heel strike while jogging, they heel strike when running pretty fast.

    The only change sometimes occurs when fully sprinting. Sometimes you get heel strikers when running, suddenly up on there mid/forefoot when sprinting. However, other times, heel strikers still sprint with a heel strike!

    Just to be clear, when I say sprint, I mean full out sprint for 100-200m, not an 800m or mile race. Heel strikers when jogging still heel struck when running a mile or 800m.

    The exact strike tends to move slightly (i.e. at 800m pace they might be slightly more towards the front of the foot and slightly more towards the back when jogging), but most people don't switch from one foot strike to another.

    For example, in these videos of me running, look at the closeup high speed foot strike. In the first I'm running about 10k race pace:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2LZE2pNZyw

    In the second, I'm running mile down to 800m pace:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWfZlpVbvjM

    Both are very similar strikes.


    Lastly, a mile isn't a sprint, especially for these athletes and at 400m into the race. It's a distance race and it's submaximal. For example many of these ladies can probably run 52-53 for 400m, yet are running 66-67sec pace.

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  9. What does it all mean? These runners are moving fast (4:30ish mile pace), yet they have different foot-strikes. England's form looks to need tweaking, yet she's right there at the finish. Does she win easily if she changes to a flat/forefoot strike? She won the road mile at the Great North games quite easily with a kick finish.

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  10. Steve if you check that video again you will see Hannah England heel strike on the left But land mid foot on the right!

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  11. Anonymous8:27 AM

    Running slower and faster has a huge effect on foot strike. While running faster you have more of an efficient stride. If you watch Kenyans run their warmup pace for a workout, they almost completely use a heel strike. One of the reasons for the increase in injuries throughout running, is that there are a lot more slow runners. Running slow is not efficient. Plus, runners don't run enough miles anymore to help get the efficient stride and footstrike. It's been known for many years that footstrike matters, all the way back to Lydiard. These new studies puzzle a lot of experience runners and coaches. They are all saying the same thing that has been taught even at the high school level.

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  12. Johnny D4:13 PM

    Well from this video of Tergat (albeit computer-edited for the commercial) it sure doesn't look like it, and he's going pretty easy.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SYd7mg05uY

    Excellent footstrike, even going slow. Same thing with the Ethiopians jogging here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QU_1uApC7kw&t=65

    hard to tell exactly in real-time speed, but they sure aren't slamming their heels down.

    Not to knock Lydiard too much, but he advocated a heel-to-toe footstrike. He talks a lot about getting shoes with a good thick rubber heel. I'm sure he wasn't talking about the Kayanos (shoes back then were pretty skimpy), but he found forefoot striking disagreeable. It was a point of contention between him and Cerutty, who advocated a graceful ball-of-foot landing (though he didn't have the technology to know that, in forefoot striking, contact actually happens on the outside of the foot, not under the ball of the foot.

    Also, your efficiency at different speeds depends on who you are. A miler is more efficient at 60-second 400 pace. A marathoner is more efficient at 5:00 miles. I bet Scott Jurek is most efficient at 7:00 miles.

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  13. Notice the woman that won was not a heel striker but landed on her forefoot.

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  14. Anonymous10:15 AM

    Great blog. Thanks

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  15. Anonymous12:21 PM

    Hey Steve I was wondering when it comes to full speed sprinting does the runner have to actively accelerate the foot down into the ground after the knee is at the highest point? or do you just let the foot drop into the ground naturally? i've ask several people regarding this and opinions have been mixed. what's your thought on this? thanks

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  16. Anonymous10:09 AM

    I think it's important to note that what can appear to be heel striking may not necessarily be that when footwear is removed from the equation. You have to consider that footwear itself does in fact effect our foot strike and gait and what you consider to be heel striking may, at the very least, actually be more of a mid-foot landing or "natural" stride if the shoe did not have an elevated heel.
    How can you possibly be so biased toward what proper foot strike is? Just because you have a particular experience for yourself over the years does not mean that you are the be all end all of knowing what is correct and what is not. I'm not trying to be confrontational, but I think you have become very focused at one point of view and need to take a step back from all the academics and look at things from a more "common sense" perspective.

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  17. Robert Osfield11:33 AM

    One of the observation about the video I finding interesting - that that even runners landing forefoot landing still have extend their leg out in front of them, just like the ones landing on their heel. This leads on on a second observation that that forefoot landers have time time bring their foot back under their knee in time for landing, so even though they have quite a large forward extension they still land in good posture.

    These two observations at not at all surprising and what one would expect of a runner with good form is running smoothly and at a fast pace, I point these out as it lead me on to wonder if the effect of fatigue on running form may be related to these two observations.

    If fatigue results in the ground reaction force being reduced then one would expect the time in the air will be reduced as a consequence. If you spend less time in the air then you have less time to extend the leg forward *and* pull the foot back in time for nice landing of the foot under the knee and on the forefoot. If you are fatigued your ability to pull back the foot rapidly from full extension is also diminished. Either of these effects on their own, or in particular both together will result in an increased difficulty in landing with good form and increase the likelihood of changing to heel landing.

    One of course needn't end up with poorer form due to fatigue, on can accept a shorter stride length, but unless you can up your cadence this will of course mean a slower speed. However, struggling to maintain stride length even when your body is unable generate the vertical forces necessary maintain time in the air and proper leg/foot turnover is not going to be pretty either, you are going to see a shorter stride length and with it slower speed anyway.

    My guess is that marathoners and especially the ultra-marathoners are the ones that will see the most harm done to their performance and recovery if their form is allowed to dis-integrate too much. Might it be best for such long distance runners accept that fatigue can result in slower speeds, and instead focus on maintaining cadence, running form and associated efficiency?

    Is there any research into fatigue and running form that explores the ability to generate ground reaction force and proper leg turnover?

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  18. Nick Fletcher12:35 PM

    It's important to notice that even though some of these women are heel striking, the heel is not impairing them. It touches first but they're almost immediately on their mid foot. The heel strike has little to no impact.

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  19. Anonymous11:22 AM

    I would distinguish between first contact of the shoe, and where the weight of the body actually comes down. In most of the runners shown in the photos, compared to in the videos, this is more forward on the foot than what you see in photos.

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  20. What percent before the height which way it is landed, consider than landing type, to be important.

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  21. Interesting number of flat footed runners

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